Cold Sailing

by Mike Hemming

We are an ice-covered gray ghost as we slide upriver, coming home finally. Salty brine frozen to the hull hides our black paint. Pale faces with red rimmed eyes tell of fighting mountainous seas for some untold weeks. Watches blurred into nothing as we fought day and night just to remain upright on watch, or horizontal in our bunks.

A calendar tells we were out for 4 weeks, but our minds can’t believe it. Only a month, no it must have been years, but it wasn’t. Time didn’t mean much out there, either you were on watch or you weren’t. For most of us, what we were doing there was not important. Were we actually doing something or were we just out there? We don’t always know for sure, but somehow we cared enough to go. We cared for our shipmates and her. She may be cold steel to others, but to us she has become life, our reason to be. Because she carries us inside her, we went. We can leave, but we can’t leave. To do so would be to become less in our own eyes and less in the eyes of those who pinned Dolphins on our chests. So we stay and freeze in the north and sweat in the south, winter and summer.

Four long weeks of cold, wet and violent twisting, tossing around. Submerging to escape that only to have to snorkel for air and battery charges. Then for hours, the heavy seas cause the head valve to close and the engines try to suck all the air out of our home. Vacuums then try to pull our exhausted brains out of our ears. Men try to swallow to equalize the pressure even in their tired half-sleep. As the head valve opens and the air pressure returns to normal our eardrums are squeezed back into our throbbing heads. Swallowing and popping ears goes on until finally the charge is over. Or the seas close the valve too long and the engines are shut down on high vacuum. A ship or a plane comes too near and we must dive deeper into the cold depths to hide from all. We are alone, striving to remain hidden as we patrol. The cold sea is only one of our enemies.

Always the cold, nothing is warm any more, even the engine rooms are cold. Nothing dries out, cold dampness pervades all, clothing, bedding, and even our skin, it seems. Blankets and foul weather jackets are gold and held onto with ferocity. We wrap up like mummies to eat, work and sleep. The extra padding helps also when thrown into a locker by the rough seas.

We became sullen and robot like, doing what we had to, cold and quiet, hanging on mentally and physically until the future day we sail ice-encrusted into port for warmth.

Warm homes, steam heated barracks, motel rooms, even a booth in the local submarine bar. Warmth, in hearth and home, warmth in companionship, missed so long and enjoyed to the fullest now. We take what we get when we can because we know it will end someday soon.

Back at the pier, steam hoses blast away her rime of ice, showing her sleek black paint once again. She is looking deadly again, not like a misshapen ice lump. With power to spare, heaters are turned on again and she warms inside and dries out. Life is warm again and we forget the cold until the next time, next patrol or next winter.